In the skin of a reptile

Researchers are studying the development of skin in different mammals and reptiles. If a particular gene is defective in a crocodile embryo, it will be born without scales.

The skin is the body’s largest organ. At the same time, it is also one of the least explored. Skin formation, how it grows and how it develops color patterns, are processes that remain largely a mystery. Michel Milinkovitch, evolutionary developmental biologist and biophysicist at the University of Geneva, is addressing these questions. He compares the development of the skin in different animal species, from mammals to chameleons, snakes and crocodiles. "The genes that control skin appendage development are very similar in all animal species, including humans," says Milinkovitch.  If one of these genes is defective, a reptile might grow without scales, a bird without feathers or a human without hair.

In Milinkovitch's team, biologists, physicists, computer scientists and mathematicians work hand in hand. The team has also developed its own equipment, including a robotic arm which can make very high-resolution, entire-body scans of animals. This allows the researchers to track skin appendage and skin color development in real time. The knowledge gained through research like this might one day be used in medical applications such as the production of artificial skin.

Contact: Michel Milinkovitch, michel.milinkovitch(at), +41 22 379 33 38


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